SMOKE: Old Friends

Originally published: 7 June 2005

It was a wild and crazy week last week.

I was down in the dumps for numerous reasons - thousands of reasons, actually - and I had one eye on the weekend and the other on redemption.

I was reaching the summit of my working week - the last push before the downhill slide to the weekend - when after eleven o'clock at night I received a private message in my forum inbox.

And there he was - an old friend. A very old friend. The very first person to ever befriend me when I came to Cape Town from Pretoria in 1985, on that fateful first day at my new school where I stupidly (or perhaps na´vely) stated loud and clear that the reason I knew nobody at the school was because I was from the Transvaal.

A brief stunned silence ensued before the entire class - including the teacher - burst out laughing. I had no idea Capetonians were stuck-up arseholes who thought their shit didn't stink, and it was my first taste of it.

You didn't want to be telling folks you came from the Transvaal. It was like admitting you had the hots for Hitler.

But right after that first class of high school - as I was walking alone down the steps - I felt a hand on my shoulder, and the owner said: "Hi - I'm Al. I also have no friends."

And thus began a 20-year friendship that was interrupted by fate, circumstance and all those grown-up things, and since leaving drama school - two years after high school - I have only seen Al twice.

Three times, if you include Friday night.

We arranged to meet at the second place I was ever fired from (and incidentally my second ever job) - the Foresters Arms Pub in Newlands. I used to live a stone's throw away from the place and first waitered there then moved up to barman and began a career of careful "spillage" management which ensured I never went thirsty.

Of course I - and an elderly barman - were caught one day, and being the noble soul I am (not) I took the rap and was fired. There was nothing noble about it, actually - I'd grown to hate the place and the pissed losers who sat opposite me every night, speaking to me as though I was less than them (which in status, unfortunately, I was) - so I was happy to get out.

It was weird going back there and it was perfectly set up for an evening of smoky drinking - the rain was pissing down like sleet and there was a chill that bit through cloth and bone.

I found myself with my arse at the log fire and although it was too hot it was better than too cold.

Then Al arrived, we ordered an open tap and spent three (four? five?) hours over a small round table, smoking ourselves into early graves and reliving the sins of the past, as our faces gradually melted into the smoke around us and everything became a blur.

For me, at any rate - Al seemed to be doing fine, but I was having trouble staying on my stool.

I haven't drunk like that for a decade. Pint after pint of cold draught went down easier than a Silverton slapper and it's been many a year since I can't remember how much I drank.

A lot. Far too much. Yet nowhere near enough.

I'd been to Al's wedding in the '90s (but left early after a nasty hallucinogenic experience with a former reprobate pal of mine, for which I spent many slurred hours apologising to Al for, apparently unnecessarily) and I'd seen him one other time.

But other than those few brief, non-intimate moments I hadn't seen my best mate for the best part of 13 years.

You live a lifetime in 13 years. A fucking lifetime, man. And for 13 years I've remained connected by that thin, invisible thread that will always keep us attached in some way to those first and oldest friends, even though I believed that thread had been severed years ago.

I blamed myself for having left my friends behind me all those years ago and was shocked to learn that Al had the same guilt for what he believed he'd done to me.

It was a night of startling revelations, made easier and more nostalgic in proportion to the amount of beer imbibed.

Forries filled up and occasionally I glanced up, surprised to see the change in room dynamic and noise level. Where did they all come from? Where did that chick go - the one whose g-string was peeping invitingly out of her low-cut black pants and who seemed to have spent ages trying to rearrange the situation, drunkenly and unsuccessfully?

The mysteries of pubs.

But as time passed and slowed the fringes of the room blurred into a pleasant, warm din and I couldn't see much beyond the laughing, familiar face in front of me.

A face upon which I know every line - even the ones that weren't there a decade ago - and in which I have seen every possible emotion and understood every one.

Not a lot of folks you can say that about in your life.

The years rolled back like they were a mere blink in time, but the talk wasn't only reminiscing about old times - it was about ourselves and where and what we've become in 13 years, the mistakes we've made and the regrets we don't have, and despite the vast oceans that have separated us - and the incredibly different life experiences - we're still both exactly the same. Only better, I think.

It was a night of catharsis, renewed energy and further understanding, and despite the drunken nature of it I took it all in and kept it.

We parted ways a lot later and I phoned ahead to St Elmo's as I was picking up supper for Tashi and I. The roads were slick and dark on my way home and the street lights were out, and turning off Belmont Road and into Milner - at one of the four corners of the Rondebosch Common - I realised the light was changing quicker than I thought.

Being loaded to the gills (I never said I was proud of it, but it's a fact and you need the facts) I made a lunge to get through before the light changed, rather than the more sober option of slowing and waiting.

As I turned the wheel I felt the back end of the car slipping out on the wet road with the extra acceleration and knowing full well I'd lost control of the car I calmly let it ride the spin, instinctively and gently turning the car 180°.

I hit nothing. Nothing at all. I sat facing the wrong way in the middle of the road, paused for a moment to take in the fact that I had kept the engine running smoothly but worried slightly about whether I mightn't have flat-spotted one of my Bridgestone boots, then with a flick of the wheel and a spinning of tyres I fishtailed back into the right direction, and drove the rest of the way home.

The two pizzas - on the seat next to me - remained exactly as I had placed them. They hadn't moved an inch.

I thought about what a story that would have made - guy hooks up with old and dear friend he hasn't seen in years, reconnects - not only with his mate but himself as well - and discovers life in places he'd never thought to look.

Only to wipe out like every other drunken, dead driver and be nothing more than an ironic few paragraphs somewhere.

Puts it in perspective when you view friendship like that, because it confirmed for me one thing loud and clear - I want to see my mate again.

Simon and Garfunkel - acoustic, harmonic and retro-bad-hair-day though they be - probably understood all that.

Can you imagine us years from today,
Sharing a park bench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
Old friends, memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears

Simon and Garfunkel, Old Friends, 1968

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

Look at me now - all the way from Uitenhage to the bright lights of the big internet.

Find out more using the handy links provided.

Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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